Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
The events recorded in our text occurred at an important juncture in the history of Old Testament Israel. For forty years Israel had wandered in the wilderness. There were reasons for Israel’s forty years of confinement in the wilderness. The main reason, of course, was Israel’s rebellion against God and refusal to enter the land at Kadesh-Barnea. In unbelief the people had listened to the evil report of the ten spies. Because of that unbelief, God had not permitted Israel to enter the promised land but had made them wander for forty years in the wilderness. During that time everyone twenty years of age and older, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, had died.
Another reason for the forty years of wandering was that the Canaanites’ cup of iniquity was not yet full. Now, forty years later, their cup of iniquity is full. They are ripe for the judgment of God.
Still another reason for the wilderness wandering was the preparation of the future generation to enter into and to conquer the promised land. This was a whole generation that did not know or were too young to remember God’s wonderful deliverance of Israel out of Egypt. Through the rigors of the wilderness wandering, they were prepared for the conquest of Canaan. They saw the wonders of God. They experienced firsthand God’s care of His people. For forty years God had daily provided them with the manna, as well as water from the rock. We read in Deuteronomy 29:5 that at the end of the forty years their clothes had not waxed old nor had their shoes worn out.
But now God had brought them into the land of Canaan. By a mighty miracle He had divided the waters of the Jordan River. The entire nation had passed over the Jordan on dry ground. They and their children were safely on the other shore, in Canaan at last.
God had been good to Israel! This goodness and grace of God must be remembered.
This is the will of God for His redeemed people. They must know, they must remember, and they must confess His goodness. They must live in the consciousness of God’s goodness and grace. And they must proclaim God’s goodness and grace to the entire world.
For this reason, the Lord gives instructions to Joshua for the erection of a memorial at Gilgal, on the western bank of the Jordan River.
A Reminder to Israel
We must not suppose that there were two memorials constructed. Verse 9 in our King James translation leaves that impression. It would be better that verse 9 read, “And Joshua set up twelve stones that had been in the midst of Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests which bare the ark of the covenant had stood: and they are there unto this day.” There was one memorial constructed, and that memorial was constructed on the western bank of the Jordan River at the place called Gilgal.
This memorial was to be constructed in a certain way. The Lord Himself gave the instructions for the construction of the memorial. It was to be constructed out of stone, twelve stones. Joshua was to designate twelve men, one out of each of the tribes of Israel. Each of those men was to take a stone out of the middle of the Jordan River. The stones were to come from the dry path that God had made through the river, out of the place where the priests’ feet had stood firm in the river. They were to carry those twelve stones on their shoulders out of the dry riverbed onto the far shore. With those twelve stones the memorial at Gilgal was to be built.
The purpose of this heap of stones was that it should serve as a memorial, that is, a reminder to the children of Israel.
That is indicated by what we read in the passage. In the first part of verse 6 we read: “That this (that is, this heap of stones) may be a sign among you….” And at the end of verse 7 we read: “… and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.”
Of what were these stones to remind Israel? The memorial at Gilgal was to remind Israel of the grace of God. These stones were a monument to grace. They were to remind Israel of the goodness of God in bringing them into the promised land. The stones came out of the dry riverbed. They were a testimony to the goodness of God in saving His people, the goodness of God in making a way for His people where there was no way.
They were a testimony to sovereign grace. God did what no man could do. By His almighty power and by His outstretched arm He brought Israel through the death and destruction of the waters of Jordan safely into the rest of Canaan.
The stones were a testimony to undeserved grace. Israel did not deserve this goodness of God. The forty years of wandering in the wilderness had demonstrated that. They were a rebellious and sinful people who did not deserve God’s goodness in bringing them into Canaan. Although they did not deserve it, God in His grace brought them out of the wilderness, through the Jordan, and into the promised land.
The stones were a testimony to particular grace. The memorial was constructed of twelve stones. Of all the peoples of the earth, the twelve tribes of Israel alone were the people to whom God had been gracious.
And thus, the purpose of the memorial at Gilgal was to spur Israel on to grateful and holy living. Remembering the goodness and grace of God, Israel must live in the land to the praise of the God who had been so gracious to them. Out of gratitude they must live to the praise of His glorious name.
The memorial would serve this purpose because of the prominent place it would have in Israel. The memorial would have an almost constant presence among the people. In the whole first phase of the conquest of Canaan, Israel’s base of operations was Gilgal. Every time the army went forth, it would depart from Gilgal. And every time they returned, they would return to Gilgal. The people would live, as it were, in the shadow of the memorial at Gilgal.
We learn something from this. What we learn is that the first and greatest threat to the apostasy of God’s people does not come from false teachers outside of the church. That is a very real and constant threat. The false teachers must be exposed and God’s people must be warned against their pernicious errors. But false teachers are not the first and greatest threat to God’s people.
Neither does the first and greatest threat to apostasy come from the influence of the wicked world on the church. Worldliness is a real threat and an ever-present danger. But it is not the greatest threat faced by the church.
The most serious threat to apostasy comes from God’s people themselves, that God’s people forget the great works of the Lord. That was true for Israel and that is true for us today. In fact, it may be said that forgetfulness of God’s works is the first step towards apostasy. That is how apostasy always begins. The false teachers make their inroads, and worldliness is embraced because God’s people have forgotten the wonderful works of God.
Before his death, Moses had warned Israel of this very thing. In Deuteronomy 8:11ff. he had said, “Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: Lest when thou hast eaten and art full … thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage….” That warning against forgetting the mighty works of God applies as much to us today as it applied to Israel in the Old Testament.
We do not have memorials of stone today like the memorial at Gilgal. But we do have memorials, memorials that remind us of the very same truths that the memorial at Gilgal was intended to remind Israel of: God’s sovereign and particular grace, our unworthiness, and our calling in the light of God’s grace to live thankful and holy lives.
What are those memorials?
One of those memorials is Holy Scripture, and the preaching and teaching of Holy Scripture. That is the message of the Bible and the message of the preaching of the gospel. It is the message of grace, the free and sovereign grace of God in His Son, Jesus Christ. It is the message of particular grace. And it is the call to God’s Israel today, in light of and out of that grace, to live in holiness to the praise of the grace of God.
Another of those memorials is the sacraments. The sacraments are memorials to the grace of God. The sacraments are especially powerful memorials because they are visible signs and seals of that grace of God.
Still another memorial is the confessions: our own Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, and the ancient and ecumenical creeds. That is the main purpose of the creeds: the defense of the free and sovereign grace of God in His Son, the divine Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet another memorial is the great works of God in the history of the church. A memorial is erected here to remind Israel of a great work of God in the history of His Old Testament church.
But those great works of God in history do not stop with the Old Testament church; they continue in the New Testament down to this very day. God raised up a memorial to His grace at Nicea in A.D. 325, a memorial to the truth that God’s grace to His people is always in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. God raised up a memorial in His church in the fourth century through Augustine when Pelagius denied the grace of God in salvation. God raised up a memorial at the time of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century through men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox, after Rome had repudiated the grace of God and replaced it with the works and worth of man. God raised up a memorial at the synod of Dordt in 1618-19 over against the denial by the Arminians of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. He raised up a memorial in the reformation known as the Afscheiding of 1834 in the Netherlands through men like DeCock and Brummelkamp and the rest. He raised up a memorial in the Doleantie of 1886 under Dr. Abraham Kuyper. He raised up a memorial in our own land at the time of the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church in 1857.
And He raised up a memorial in 1924, through Herman Hoeksema and Henry Danhof and George Ophoff. That was a memorial to grace, to sovereign, particular grace over against the general grace of the Three Points. In every church reformation, that centrally has been the issue. That was the issue in 1924. Then in 1953 God preserved the memorial to His grace among us when there were those who attempted to deface and vandalize the memorial.
Brothers of the synod of 2000 of the Protestant Reformed Churches, you are called to preserve the memorial at Gilgal. This is not simply the responsibility that the churches entrust to you, but this is the responsibility that God Himself gives you. This must be before your consciousness in all your deliberations and in every decision that you make. Preserve the memorial. See to it that the memorial is maintained.
Preserve Gilgal’s memorial, the memorial to the sovereign grace of God: in the theological school of our churches, in the great work of missions, in the work of contact with other churches and denominations, and in the life of the churches.
A Means of Instruction to Future Generations
The purpose of the memorial at Gilgal, however, was not only that it should be a reminder to the present generation of the sovereign grace of God, but that it should also serve as a means of instruction to future generations.
This was an important reason for the erection of the memorial. That is mentioned in verses 6 and 7 and again in verses 21-23. God has His eye on the up-and-coming generation. It is His will that they know His wonderful works and confess His sovereign grace. It is His will that the present generation teach the coming generation the wonderful works and sovereign grace of God.
The memorial at Gilgal, now, must serve this purpose: the children will see the memorial and will ask about the memorial. Then the father must take the time to answer their questions and to explain to them the mighty works of God and the grace of God shown to Israel.
This belongs to our calling today. This is the calling of the synod; this is the calling of every minister and every officebearer; this is the calling of covenant parents and grandparents.
In the carrying out of this calling, Israel proved herself unfaithful. We learn that from the Book of Judges (2:8-10). There arose a generation that knew not the Lord nor the mighty works that He had done for Israel. Significantly, when the angel of the Lord was sent to rebuke Israel for its unfaithfulness, Judges 2:1 informs us that the angel “came up from Gilgal.”
The same thing is true today. Not only is there a general forgetfulness of the mighty works of God and a lack of teaching the sovereign grace of God to the children and young people of the church. But there are actually those (and that is worse) who are systematically dismantling the memorial at Gilgal. About the Holy Scriptures they are saying that it is a human book, time-bound, and culturally conditioned. About the church’s confessions they are saying that they are outdated, irrelevant, and of no practical value for the church today. About the great events in church history they are saying that those squabbles of the past must be forgotten; for the most part they involved petty issues and were predominantly personality clashes. The church must put these things behind her in the interests of ecumenicity and denominational unity.
The results today are the same as they were in Old Testament Israel. A generation has arisen that does not know the Lord or the mighty works that He has done, a generation that has forsaken the God of sovereign grace for the service of gods of this world.
For the sake of our children, for the sake of future generations, the memorial at Gilgal must be preserved.
A Witness to the World
But besides being a reminder to Israel and a means of instruction to future generations, the memorial at Gilgal was also to serve as a witness to the world at large.
That is verse 24. The purpose of the memorial did not end with the nation of Israel; but its purpose included “all the people of the earth.” The same thing is true today. That is the glorious calling that God gives to the Protestant Reformed Churches. God calls us to proclaim and defend His greatness, His mighty works, and His sovereign grace to all the world. He calls us to do that in evangelism and in missions. By God’s grace we are doing that. What a privilege that we may be used of God in this way.
In the case of the world at large, the church’s witness to God’s sovereign grace serves a twofold purpose. The first purpose of God is the salvation of the elect out of the nations. But it is also the purpose of God that by this witness of the church others will be hardened, left in their sin, and have their judgment before God aggravated.
May God keep up among us a faithful witness to Him and to His sovereign grace. May the memorial at Gilgal be preserved in our midst, for our salvation and the salvation of our children—but especially for the glory of His great name. Amen.